Tour Confidential: What’s next for Rory McIlroy? Plus, the end of the Tiger Era and Fowler vs. Garcia

July 22, 2014

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Rory McIlroy won the British Open by two shots over Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler on Sunday. What impressed you most about McIlroy at Royal Liverpool?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Well, a lot of things: his awe-inspiring tee shots; high, buttery long-irons; superb putting. But I was most impressed by his grit. He simply refused to lose. If Rory can play more often with this kind of determination, then he is going to do some truly historic things in this game.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): I was awed that at his size, he was only a few yards behind Dustin Johnson's best drives on Saturday. He was just killing it. He also sank some huge putts. Not so much the eagles he closed with on Saturday, but some great 10- to-12-foot par-savers that kept his momentum going after making the rare mistake.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I was out there for those two eagles in the last three holes Saturday, and they were impressive. In fact, the way he played Sunday, you could say they won him the Open. The drives were epic — long, straight, timely. And the long irons were just as spectacular, especially the one on 18, which never left the pin. Dustin Johnson, his playing partner that day, looked really deflated. Johnson is a mega-talent, but when Rory is feeling it, he is just as breathtaking, just as brilliant as Tiger was in his prime. It's just that Woods has still had many, many more of those jaw-dropping moments. Give Rory time.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, (@eamonlynch): He seemed utterly without doubt from Thursday onward. If a player of his caliber is swinging well and supremely confident, then almost everyone else in the field is playing for second.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): It was a complete victory, but Rory dominated the par-5s by being aggressive and hitting a bunch of drivers. He essentially made them par-4s and finished 9-under for the week on those three holes. Couple that with the way he managed his game with the lead on Sunday, and it all felt eerily similar to a Tiger-in-2000 kind of victory.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): It was a different kind of dominance than in 2006, when Woods won at Liverpool by mostly removing driver from his repertoire. McIlroy stayed aggressive, even with a big lead (driver off of the 1st this morning when most players were laying back). It was also impressive how he righted himself after a brief wobble, showing a different kind of steeliness than he did in his other two major wins, which were pretty much runaways.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Same as in the past: drives it as well as anybody since Norman, and has a far higher golf IQ.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): I'd go with his play on Saturday from the time he dropped back into a tie with Rickie Fowler. The tournament was slipping away from Rory, but he engineered a fabulous up-and-down to maintain a share of the lead at the 13th, then he made two eagles and a birdie over the last five holes to go from tied to six shots up. Great players seize the opportunity. What a statement.

Jessica Marksbury, associate editor, Golf Magazine (@Jess_Marksbury): We've already seen what Rory can do when he's "on" — obliterating fields and winning two majors by large margins. What impressed me most about Rory today was his composure. It's a very difficult thing to lead a major by six shots heading into the final round because expectations are so high, but he remained calm, even when Sergio looked like he was making a charge. Now, we've seen that Rory is also capable of gutting it out and closing, even when he's isn't firing on every single cylinder.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): His putting. We knew he was long, but if he putts this well, he is major force.

2. McIlroy has won three of the four majors at age 25 — the only other players to accomplish that are Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. How would you describe McIlroy’s young career in historical terms and what do you expect from him in the years ahead?

BAMBERGER: He's one of the great talents of all-time, but not remotely in the class of Woods or Nicklaus. He's strong and supple and should have a long, long career and will win when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter is aligned with Mars.

LYNCH: He is clearly the best of his generation, but he's always likely to be more streaky than Woods or Nicklaus. Each time he falls into an apparent slump or maelstrom of off-course distractions, he seems to respond with a big win. His career hasn't been a steady climb but rather one of fits and starts. Still, when he's on form, it is an awesome thing to watch. If he keeps winning majors at this pace, he may stand a better chance of eclipsing Jack than Tiger does.

GODICH: He's in the company of Jack and Tiger. That pretty much sums it up. I'm putting Rory down for a career grand slam (he'll win two or three Masters) and eight majors, 10 if he catches a break or two.

SHIPNUCK: If Tiger was Joe DiMaggio (possessing a majestic all-around game with no weakness), Rory is Babe Ruth — an awesome homerun hitter. Any time a major venue plays a little soft, he's a threat to blow away the field. He has yet to prove he can win on a really firm, fast layout, which is why he's struggled at other Opens and the Masters is his missing piece of the Slam. But Rory has all the tools to succeed there, or anywhere else. The truly scary thing is that he's still learning how to play the game. The sky is the limit.

RITTER: Joining a list that includes Jack and Tiger speaks for itself. He's in rare air. It's hard not to consider the possibility of Rory one day making a major run at Tiger's 14 or Jack's 18. Before the Open, I might've set Rory's over/under on career majors at seven. Today I'd move it into double digits. Tiger's pursuit of Jack's record was the biggest story in golf for so long — in fact, it probably still is — but the idea that Rory could also threaten Jack's mark is fresh and exciting. This is going to be fun.

PASSOV: We knew he had this in him three years ago– all of this sick, crazy, wonderful potential. His breezy attitude, rapport with people, to-die-for swing tempo — all of this had "all-time great" written all over it, until it didn't. No one really saw this 18-month slump coming, but how do any of us know the impact all of the outside stuff had on his life? Management, girlfriend, equipment change, etc. At Hoylake, Rory looked like the guy from 2011-2012 that was supposed to come in and dominate. Let's let it unfold from here.

SENS: Given the depth of talent these days, his three might be the most impressive. To paraphrase what Johnny Miller once said about Tiger, the only thing that will keep him from banking a bunch of additional majors is putting problems, marriage problems, or injury problems.

MARKSBURY: Rory is certainly the most exciting young player that I can remember (since Tiger, anyway) to actually deliver on expectations of greatness. And lest we forget, Rory's been through a lot in the last 18 months. It would seem that with various things behind him now — a broken engagement, a major equipment change — the sky is truly the limit. Rory's talent is just incredible, and now that his confidence is high again, it doesn't seem like a stretch to say that we may be entering a new Rory era. Bring it on!

MORFIT: Rory is streaky. When he's on, he can run off victories in bunches, the way he did in 2012 when he won the PGA Championship and then back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff events. I'm not going to say he's a lock to win the PGA next month, but I did already check how many par 5s Valhalla has (three). If you want to predict which courses McIlroy might win majors on, you could do worse than pick the ones Tiger won majors on. That owes to something Luke Donald was talking to me about: strokes-gained driving. McIlroy, like Woods in his prime, can at times completely separate himself with his long game.

3. Tiger Woods finished 69th at 6-over. After Woods' 77 on Friday, Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee declared that the Tiger era is over. Do you agree that Tiger’s days as a dominant force in golf are finished? What about Phil Mickelson?

MORFIT: I think Phil showed more signs than Tiger did this week, but let's not forget Woods had played just two competitive rounds since major back surgery on the last day of March. Nobody should have bought into the idea that he could contend here after his opening-round 69. He's got a lot of work to do. Is he finished as a dominant force? Is Phil finished as a dominant force? Yes in both cases, if you define dominance as any kind of lasting thing. I still think each might pick off another major — they're both too good to rule out entirely.

SHIPNUCK: Yes, the end is nigh for both of them as consistently dominant forces. They will remain sporadically dangerous at the majors, but this is Rory's world now, and they're just living in it.

PASSOV: Right now, Tiger reminds me of Seve Ballesteros of the 1990s: His wayward driver was killing him, yet testament to his genius, he would find a way to contend and occasionally win. Until he fixes his driver, his days as a dominant force are over. Yet, this is the greatest player of our day. We counted him out a few times before — and he came back in 2013 with five wins. I'm giving him time to get it right, and I think he will. Phil may need to find more motivation, but gosh, he's not that far off. I mean, he's not shooting 78-78. Bad year, true. Nicklaus did that at age 39, in 1979, then came back with two majors at age 40 in 1980. Phil ain't done, either.

MARKSBURY: Yep, as much as it saddens me to say it, I just don't see Tiger being competitive on a regular basis at this point. I do think he has plenty of tournament wins left in him, and maybe even a major or two, but the days (and years) of seeing Tiger as a regular atop the leaderboard are long gone. As far as Phil goes, he's always been a bit streaky and mercurial. I never really thought of Phil as "dominant." But I will always pick him to contend at Augusta, and oh, how I would love to see him win the U.S. Open!

GODICH: Brandel is right. Tiger and Phil will have their moments, but we're entering a new era in golf. No question who the new poster boy is. It'll be fun to watch it unfold.

SENS: Yes. But I think you could place the date further back, closer to the day when Y.E. Yang bested Tiger at the PGA. Or certainly soon after he crashed into the hydrant, the super-human aura around him began to fade. As for Phil's aura of dominance, it faded the day Tiger turned pro.

LYNCH: This point isn't even worthy of debating. It's demonstrably true that Tiger's days as a dominant force are over, and not based solely on this week's rusty performance. Dominance is measured in majors, and he hasn't won one in six years. Phil is also a diminishing force — thanks mostly to a balky putter — but still only one year removed from winning a major title. It's hard to identify any part of Tiger's game that offers cause for optimism in the majors.

RITTER: Yeah, the days of domination are over, but Tiger and Phil aren't done winning. Tiger needs to get healthy, and Phil needs to snap out of his putting slump, but both should be good for at least one more major in their careers. The new big three in golf is shaping up to be McIlroy, Scott and Kaymer, with Rory leading the class.

BAMBERGER: As the game's most dominant player? Well, last year, Woods was still the game's most dominant player. But he can't win what he wants to win. He can't have what he covets most. And in that sense, of course his domination is over. Phil should keep being Phil for a few more years. He can contend in majors, and if he does, he will know how to win. Just like Tiger.

VAN SICKLE: Brandel is probably right, but I'll give Tiger a year to recover from back surgery before judging.

4. Which 2014 British Open runner-up do you think will win a major first: Sergio Garcia or Rickie Fowler?

MORFIT: Fowler has a better record than Garcia in 2014 — top-5s in all three majors — and has more time, since he's only 25. For him, I'd say it seems inevitable. Garcia, I'm not sure. I still think the Open is his best chance for a major, just as it's Adam Scott's best chance, and Ernie Els' best chance. The Open is a great major for terrific tee-to-green players whose foibles on the greens are less likely to be accentuated by speed and slope.

PASSOV: Sergio. Fowler has played superbly in the majors, no question, and he's so good for golf, but he hasn't actually closed very often. Big edge to Sergio there.

VAN SICKLE: Rickie doesn't have all the Tiger-related scar tissue, so I pick him. But I liked what I saw from Sergio. I think he gets his major, too.

SENS: Fowler. He seems better equipped between the ears.

GODICH: I'll take Sergio. He's been so close to kicking down the door so many times, and hard as it may be to believe, he's still only 34. He seems rejuvenated. For all the great things we've seen from Rickie in the majors this season, let's not forget he only has one career PGA Tour victory.

SHIPNUCK: Fowler, because he's so ascendant. This felt a little bit like Sergio's last stand. The guy has so much scar tissue — he may win a major someday, but I can only imagine it happening the Duval way (barely make the cut, go low early on Saturday, hang on during a final round when no one mounts a challenge).

LYNCH: Fowler, who has considerably less scar tissue and a lot more self-belief when it matters. It's only this year that Fowler has been in contention in majors and he has handled it admirably. Sergio seems a lot more fatalistic in the big events, and that's tough to overcome.

MARKSBURY: Rickie all the way. I'm so impressed with the way his game has matured this year. He's played awesome golf at all three of this year's majors, and I think it's only matter of time until it's finally his time. Sergio, too, has had a great year and always seems to rise to the occasion at the British Open. My heart broke a bit for him when he failed to get it out of the bunker. That seemed to end his run and take the wind out of his sails a bit. But he did make things interesting. I still believe he'll win a couple of majors before his career is over.

RITTER: Fowler, because Sergio hasn't completely conquered the mental demons that have plagued him in these events throughout his career. Sergio's Sunday run was impressive, but that bunker shot he flubbed on 15 wasn't that tough. With three top-5s in the majors this year, Fowler is clearly a player on the rise. I think he's going to bag a major soon, maybe even at Valhalla.

BAMBERGER: Sergio. He's a better golfer.

5. With heavy rain in the forecast, the R&A decided to play threesomes off split tees for the first time ever on Saturday to beat the weather. Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia applauded the decision, while Dustin Johnson was disappointed. What did you think of the decision and how did it affect the final outcome of the tournament?

LYNCH: Many a major has been decided by luck of the draw with the weather. This Open ought to have been handled like the 142 that preceded it.

SENS: I didn't like it. The Open is at its most compelling when weather enters the fray. As for how it affected the final result, that's just the point: wind and rain add an unpredictable element. The only thing we know for sure is that more guys would have gotten wet.

RITTER: About an hour after play ended on Saturday, the course got absolutely drilled with rain. The greens puddled and play would've surely been delayed, if not totally washed out for the day. Moving up the tee times was the right move.

VAN SICKLE: I didnt know the R&A was afraid of bad weather. Since it poured hard after play finished early, I guess it was a good call. Sissies.

MARKSBURY: Can't really speculate on the woulda-shoulda-coulda aspect, but to me, the weather is always one of the biggest and most interesting factors in this championship. Changing up the format to avoid bad weather — for the first time ever — seems to go against the spirit of the event.

MORFIT: I think Rory would've won regardless. And I'm not sure how long it would've taken to clean up the course after the torrential rain that fell just after he finished his round. I liked the decision.

PASSOV: Hindsight is 20-20, so I'm not going there. We live in a different society now. That night football game a few years ago that was supposed to be played in a Philadelphia snowstorm versus the Vikings? I was salivating at the prospect. They cancelled it for “public safety" concerns. Bunch of hooey. So we break with 154 years of Open tradition, and the called-for weather never happened. Different time, different era. Rory would have stormed to victory regardless, but it definitely helped him.

BAMBERGER: They did the right thing. Why make the fans and players uncomfortable? Tradition is important, but it's not the only consideration.

SHIPNUCK: It was defensible but disappointing. In the end there was no lighting, so the players should have been forced to play through the elements. It woulda been a great show.

GODICH: I can't fault the R&A for its decision. They're not shy about playing in rain and wind, but lightning is another thing. Move on.

6. Royal Liverpool may have been a boring, defenseless course with no wind, but it produced a glittery leaderboard from start to finish. Is it a waste of time to brutalize course setups at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, given how many strange names show up in the top 20 of those events?

VAN SICKLE: My theory is, the lower the score in a major, the better the winner. And vice versa. The best players make the most birdies. Lotta birds and eagles at Hoylake, so a good board.

PASSOV: There are a bunch of great players and media colleagues who get all worked up at the "test" provided every time they trick up a U.S. Open or PGA Championship venue, as if that's supposed to identify the best players. Sorry, that rarely happens. Instead, you get a course set up so much on the edge that halfway decent shots are punished as much as poor shots. Since the best players miss more with decent shots or putts, they're lumped in with the same guys who miss badly. Look at the low-scoring British Opens. It seems like the leaderboards were full of top players. I recall Davis Love's withering comment about Paul Lawrie's 1999 win at Car-Nasty, with that insane setup, saying, "It got the champion it deserved." I'm of the opinion that the powers should select a course that will prove sufficiently testing for today's players, and let them play, period.

SHIPNUCK: Most links courses give up low scores when there's little wind, and Hoylake was also softened up by rain. It remains a good strategic test — it's the flat, mostly featureless land that makes it feel a little tedious. I'm not in favor of tricking up classic links. I mean, who cares what McIlroy shot? He was clearly the best golfer and the course identified him as such. The U.S. Open and PGA are not played on centuries-old links, so it's okay to modernize the courses to some degree. But when they become too penal and even good shots aren't rewarded, well, that's when you get random names on the leaderboard.

SENS: The majors should be set up as tough as possible without tricking up the courses. And what's wrong with strange names? Rory McIlroy. Say that aloud a few times over. Sounds pretty strange.

MARKSBURY: No. the U.S. Open is great because it's so ridiculously hard. That's a big part of its allure for me. I've never really cared about the final score at the British Open. Yes, it certainly played easier this year than most, but we didn't really get to witness the effects of any particularly harsh UK gales, either.

MORFIT: I'm happy to watch guys make birdies, like they did this week. We also saw a lot of eagles at Hoylake. Robert Karlsson made two and Garcia made one on Sunday. Rory made two on Saturday. Eagles can be such a game-changer, as they were for McIlroy on Saturday. That said, I would like to see him win a major on a dry, fast golf course. In fact, Rory himself has said he'd like to see it.

GODICH: Say what you want about Royal Liverpool, but it just added another distinguished player to its list of British Open champions. In the end, golf is all about the players and the golf shots. I rather liked the unique setup, with the three par-5s on the back nine. It created the potential for some fireworks, and I don't think we'll forget the iron shots Rory played into the last two par-5s on Saturday anytime soon.

LYNCH: If golfers are asked to display imagination, course management and patience — and not just superior ball-striking — then I think the cream rises to the top. That's what links golf demands, even if this course is the dullest of the Open rota I've seen. It doesn't require any imagination to hack sideways out of the cabbage, which is what most other major setups demand.

BAMBERGER: Yes! Pick a course you like and let them play! The more I think about Merion last year, the more uncomfortable I am with it. Maybe I should think about other things.

The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.